The first issue of Contents is a contribution from Stephen Wright on “Usership.” For the past few years I’ve been fascinated by Stephen’s ideas about invisibility, use, and redundancy, all of which come into play in the writing below. In particular, I’ve wondered about the relationship between “the user” and “the worker” – on the one hand, the difference is one between playing the role of a consumer and that of a producer; but on the other hand, as users, our activity is producing value somewhere (websites, telecoms, IP holders). It’s understandable to be repulsed by the idea of the “user” because that’s exactly how the industry and its funders name us when they’re diagramming about how to monetize our activity. But, that’s why this contribution is important: it looks at our situation plainly and begins to ask how we should act in our position as users, what kinds of rights we should have, and then how these concepts might help us map our relationship to the commons. All of the texts are available somewhere on the Internet – each issue of Contents simply points to them. -SD

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright is an art writer, independent researcher and curator and professor of art history and theory. A selection of his writings are available on the blog n.e.w.s. to which he is an active contributor,



An AAAAARG Users Guide to Usership

What makes aaaaarg function? And beyond its functionality, what kind of relationality does aaaaarg at once require, engender and transform? How can its terms of engagement be simply but accurately named? The term that comes immediately to mind is: usership. Readership may describe our engagement with some book, author or set of readings, but not the relationship between aaaaarg and its… users. Participation — that loathsome term bantered about by the neoliberal ideologues of the mainstream artworld — may describe one aspect of the empathetic but anonymous community that has coalesced around aaaaarg, but completely fails to address why we use it, and how. Not as participants nor as mere readers, but as users. And though the collective noun “usership” remains dramatically undertheorized — indeed the word itself, though immediately understandable, has not been ratified by those indexes of expert culture called dictionaries — aaaaarg itself has, here and there in its vast, user-uploaded archive, contains some compelling resources to help better grasp the philosophical underpinnings of the concept and to unpack some of the implications of a politics of usership. Of course there is no “proper” way to use aaaaarg; usership is an inherently restive and unpredictable category, meaning that the word for alleged misuse is simply actual, factual use. A tremendous amount of latitude exists between existent infrastructures, services, rules and dispositives and the countless uses to which they are put. If one were to define the premises of an emancipated usership, it could be said that a kind of reflexive poaching supersedes faithfulness and obedience. These contents are proposed in that spirit, and hopefully, in sorting and repurposing the contents of aaaaarg around usership, usefully instantiating usership while taking a first stab at shoring up the concept.

Though aaaaarg is exemplary of a usological turn in contemporary culture, it is not alone; the past ten or fifteen years have witnessed the broad expansion of the notion of usership as a new category of political subjectivity. It’s not as if using is anything new — people have been using tools, languages and odd and sundry goods and services (not to mention mind-altering substances) since time immemorial. But the rise of 2.0 culture and user-generated content and value, as well as democratic polities whose legitimacy is founded on the ability of the governed to appropriate and use available political and economic instruments, has produced active “users” (not just rebels, prosumers or automatons) whose agency is exerted, paradoxically, exactly where it is expected.

Usership represents a radical challenge to at least three deeply entrenched conceptual institutions in contemporary society: spectatorship, expert culture, and ownership. That is, it challenges hegemonic assumptions of relationality in the aesthetic, the epistemic and the ontological realms. Modernist artistic conventions, premised on so-called disinterested spectatorship, dismiss usership (and use value, rights of usage) as inherently instrumental — and the mainstream artworld’s physical and conceptual architecture is entirely unprepared to even speak of usership, even as ever more contemporary artistic practices imply a different regime of engagement than that described by spectatorship: a regime at once more extensive and more intensive. Usership represents a still more deep-seated challenge to ownership in an economy where surplus-value extraction is increasingly based on use: how long will communities of usership sit idly by as their user-generated value is privatized? In the artworld and other lifeworlds, it is expert culture — whether it be the publishing industry, or the city hall’s design office — which is most hostile to usership: from the perspective of expertise, use is invariably misuse. But from the perspective of users, everywhere, so-called misuse is simply… use. None of which is to deny that usership is a something of a double-edged sword — which is precisely what makes it interesting to consider. The challenge would seem to be to imagine a non-instrumental, emancipated form of usership.

There’s not much theoretical work on usership per se, and though it’s probably high time to fill that gap, it is also easy to understand what explains that lack: usership always plays itself out in occupied territory. Usership names a mode of groundshare, a reappropriation of a territory that will never be all its own. Usership never plays out on home ice, but is inherently on the road, challenging not merely home advantage but reinterpreting the rules of the game. For this reason, it can only be observed at play on familiar yet foreign conceptual territories, such as those of spectatorship, expert culture, and ownership — some of the most abundantly theorized institutions in our society.

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Philosophical Investigations
Wittgenstein’s second major philosophical work on language, mind, meaning and philosophy, published in 1953 after his death. Wittgenstein here puts forth his theory of user-based meaning. With disarmingly simple logic, he argued that words, propositions, languages at large have no “true” meaning independent of the way speakers use them, outside the pragmatics of common use.

Michel Foucault
Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 Volume 3: Power
Book —> Michel Foucault – Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 Volume 3: Power
“The Subject and Power” is Foucault’s key text on the politics of usership. In a way, usership shapes the focus, function and adressee of his later work: a theory of uses, a useful theory, intended for a community of users.
Michel Foucault
The History of Sexuality Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure
1.9 MB, OCR’d PDF, full book scan
In analysing the Greek understanding of “Chresis Aphrodision” — the “use of pleasure” — Foucault emphasizes the tremendous leeway in terms of how laws and customs regulating pleasures were followed — thereby defining the conceptual space of usership.
Mathieu Potte Bonneville
“Politique des usages: une boîte à outils pour la lutte des usagers”, in VACARME 29 “Michel Foucault 1984-2004”
Indispensable introduction to the concept and politics of usership in Foucault’s thought published in a special issue of Vacarme on Foucault
Giorgio Agamben
it begins with the Genius
That which is sacred is removed from the realm of usership. As such, usership is premised on an act of profanation — returning to common usage that which had been separated into the sphere of the sacred.

Spectatorship and the usership challenge

To an even greater extent than objecthood or authorship, spectatorship continues to enjoy almost self-evident status in conventional discourse as a necessary component of any plausible artworld. The critical sermons of contemporary art are rife with celebration about free and active viewer participation. Yet is there not something almost pathetic about such claims at a time when ever more practitioners are deliberately impairing the coefficient of artistic visibility of their activity, challenging the very regime of visibility designated by the collective noun “spectatorship”? When art appears outside of the authorized performative framework, there is no reason that it should occur to those engaging with it to constitute themselves as spectators. Such practices seem to break with spectatorship altogether, to which they prefer the more extensive and inclusive notion of usership. Is the current mainstream focus on spectatorship – as a number of recent theoretical publications suggest – not merely a last-ditch effort to stave off a paradigm shift already underway in art? Why and when in the history of ideas did spectatorship – let alone disinterested spectatorship to use Emmanuel Kant’s paradoxical term – emerge as the linchpin institution of visual art? And above all, what alternative forms of usership of art are today being put forward to displace and replace it?

The end of spectatorship does not mean the end of public engagement with art. Spectatorship is an historically determined regime of engagement — it is not synonymous with seeing art, but rather a specific mode of looking. In recent years, there has been a spate of “invisible” art practices — it has become something of a fashion to elude immediate recognition by spectatorship. But this is not a challenge to the institution of spectatorship, but merely a game of now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t, played within the relational frame of spectatorship. Still, within our art-historical moment, these games may suggest deeper discontent; however, they have often described as “participation” — the artworld version of 2.0 culture: the value of the work (such as it is) in this case is produced by the unpaid, unnamed “participants”, while their surplus value (what they contributed to the work but did not get back) is extracted by the artist alone. Usership is an entirely different, and entirely more restive regime of artistic engagement. For a work to have use-value for a community of users it must not only have a finality other than spectacle, it must actually have a purpose and finality other than art.

AAAAARG.ORG is not something to look at, nor some convoluted portrait of its instigator and still less of its community of users, but at once a massive and working online archive and a proposition of a massive and working online archive. In philosophical terms, a user-driven project of this kind has a double ontological status: it is both what it is and a perfectly redundant proposition of that same thing. Redundancy is usually considered to be depreciative, a term used to discredit something – be it an activity, phenomenon, device, or utterance – whose function is already fulfilled by something else. But given the number of practices adopting a logic of redundancy today, it may well be emerging as the single-most useful focusing tool in understanding the dynamics of forward-looking art today. These practices, however, though they refuse to embrace existent conventions, do not – as so many vanguard practices of the past century did – engage in a frontally antagonistic relationship with mainstream institutions and practices. On the contrary – and this is where redundancy comes into the equation in an invisible but powerfully tangible way – they do indistinguishably what is already being perfectly well done in other realms of human activity, yet they do it with an entirely different self-understanding. Redundancy is perhaps the single best concept to describe non-mimetic, or post-mimetic art that is deliberately and perfectly redundant with respect to what it also is. One could always say that a Rembrandt was both a picture and an ironing board (to quote an example chosen by Marcel Duchamp to instantiate what he brilliantly called the “reciprocal readymade,” no doubt because ironing is so ironic). However, redundancy in this sense inverses the primary-secondary logic: it is first of all an engineered system, an online archive or anything at all, and only in an accessory way a proposition of an engineered system, online archive or whatever the case may be. Whereas art used to dream of becoming non art, it now appears to have increasingly opted for a caustic form of calculated redundancy.

Jacques Rancière
The Emancipated Spectator (full text, London: Verso, 2009)
“It is in the power of associating and dissociating that the emancipation of the spectator consists…” The argument, indeed the book, is elegant, powerful but odd. It reads better if one replaces “spectator” with “user”… Rancière vs Rancière…
Friedrich Nietzsche
On the Genealogy of Morality
Cambridge translation of Nietzsche’s ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’
As Nietzsche points out, it was Kant who first introduced the ‘spectatorship’ — or what he paradoxically called ‘disinterested spectatorship’ into aesthetics. See essay III, 6.
Immanuel Kant
Critique of Judgment (Oxford 2007, Walker’s update of Meredith trans)
3rd Critique – Walker’s revision of Meredith’s translation. Excellent pdf document with bookmarks – searchable.
To get to the root of the problem. Upon a close reading, it is remarkable to see the extent to which the conceptual architecture of contemporary art conventions of display is derived from Kantian premises.
James Kirwan
An interesting reading of Kant’s “pre-Wittgensteinian” attempt to bolster up disinterested spectatorship by language-use arguements: “you can’t say ‘beautiful for me’…”
Michele White
The Body and the Screen. Theories of Internet Spectatorship
The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship
An telling case of what can happen when “spectatorship” is conflated with any form of seeing — a common but disastrous error in the age of 2.0 and post-spectatorship.
Claire Bishop
Introduction to collection of writings
There has been a great deal of talk of “participation” in art practice recently, to describe practices breaking with the spectatorship paradigm, while carefully avoiding the unwashed category of usership. Limp, but instructitive.

Expert culture and the usership challenge

As a collective noun, “usership” names not merely a paradoxical but a dialectical relational category. This is what makes it so uncomfortable for many, and why talking about the politics of usership invariably draws contestation. Because usership is a double-edged sword, whose immanence to the merely existent (users use what is, rather than proposing something else, yet through that use, which is also misuse and abuse, transform the very terms of engagement) is at once its immeasurable strength and its inherent stumbling block. Is it possible in a general way to tease out the dialectics of use? By dialectics, here, one would refer to the play between the two opposing but inseparable faces of usership: emancipated and encumbered, one the one hand offering a way out of the impasses of spectatorship-ownership-expertise, yet on the other hand constantly prey to the pitfalls of self interest and prosumerism.

Because usership is not a form of counter-expertise, it stands in a hostile but asymmetrical relationship to expert culture. Users are consistently dismissed by expert culture that discredits their claims as contaminated by self interest. Take the experts of State. Anxious to uphold their regime of exception with respect to the market-driven private sector, public-sector experts are quick to point out that they serve users, rather than customers or clients; and on the other hand, they are the first to again uphold their exceptional status by stigmatizing users (or consumer advocacy groups) as the Trojan Horse of this same market-driven logic… But the person who takes such and such a bus line every morning at dawn to get to work knows something about that line which no urban planning expert, whose perspective is informed by countless disinterested “studies”, can simply never know. This cognitive privilege is user specific. As such, usership at once designates the site where individuals and their comportments and needs are expected, where a space is available for their agency, both defining and circumscribing it; and it refers to the way in which these same users surge up and barge into a universe, which, though accustomed to managing their existence, finds itself thrown off balance by their speaking out as users. In other words – and this is related to Foucault’s theory of political action – it is not as if users burst forth in places where they are not expected, but rather the very immediacy of their presence that is ambivalent, and cannot be reduced to a progressive recognition nor to a mere cooptation by the powers that be. Governance, control, disciplines of all kinds, necessarily produce usership comprised of users and not just rebels or automatons submissive to an exterior norm. Users take on those instances of power closest to them. And in addition to this proximity, or because of it, they do not envisage that the solution to their problem could lie in any sort of future to which the present might or ought to be subordinated (very different in this respect to any revolutionary horizon). They have neither the time to be revolutionary – because things have to change – nor the patience to be reformists, because things have to stop. The radical pragmatism of usership struggles then have this specificity that they renounce power in the name of power. “We are all governed, and as such in solidarity”: such is Foucault’s conception of usership as a model of political agency and action, setting aside both a horizon (in the name of the present alone) and sovereignty (that it, the ultimate identity that he saw between traditional resistance movements and the power which they contested and wanted to transcend).

Michel de Certeau
The Practice of Everyday Life
University of California Press, Berkeley.1984.
“Innumerable ways of playing and foiling the other’s game, that is, the space instituted by others, characterize the… activity of groups which, since they lack their own space, have to get along in a network of already established forces…” MdC
Mackenzie Wark
A Hacker Manifesto
Full Book VersionAs a modern-day, reflexive poacher, the user is often a hacker, in Wark’s expanded understanding of hackership.
Jonathan Hill
institution, creative user, reader, viewer
Refreshing to note how decomplexed architectural theory is with respect to usership, and how the centre of creative gravity has long since shifted from the authorial to the usological axis.
Jonathan Hill
Occupying Architecture – Between the Architect and the User
Interested in how Death of the Author can influence architecture
The very title, “Occupying Architecture,” reads like a definition of the usership challenge to expert culture.

Ownership and the usership challenge

Ownership describes a legal institution that codifies a relationship of exclusivity with respect to an object, or any property construed to be an object, in terms of rights and control. It is made up of complex sets of instruments of regulation and enforcement, and is such a mainstay of liberal ideology that it would virtually self-evident status in majority opinion were it not for… usership, which challenges its very conditions of possibility by insisting on use value and rights of use.

Though radicals have challenged ownership over the centuries, the perspective of usership is original in many respects and may have the potential to turn back the tide on the wholesale privatization of everything. Usership as a community of users has taken on particular importance in 2.0 culture, where inter-cerebral networks of online or offline users generate content, knowledge, affect and value of all kinds. When Google purchased YouTube, how did they calculate the price tag? Not based on the value of the hardware, nor even the software, but as it were on the basis of the user-wear (and tear). They calculated how many people had ever, even just once, used YouTube, and fixed a common price on each and every user — not that they thought all usage is equal, but because it was as a community of use that value had been generated. But this is not just a paradox, it is a scandal. Because none of those value-producing users received anything for the value they produced. Their user-generated surplus value was expropriated, in that case of mass collaboration and countless others. When in the 1970s Jean-Luc Godard quipped that television viewers ought to be paid to watch, it was assumed he was sarcastically commenting on the quality of broadcasting. Thirty-five years on, the remark appears premonitory: if usership generates value, it should be remunerated. If it produces surplus value, great — we may be witnessing the end of work as we know it. But that surplus value must be redistributed within the community that produced it, not foster capital accumulation for a rentier class of owners. Never before has ownership seemed more akin to theft, as Proudhon so flatly described it in 1840. And as ownership seeks to extend the regime of artificial scarcity to the commons of use, withdrawing from common use that which allows usership to produce value, it becomes increasingly mired in a contradiction which can only be its demise. Sooner, let us hope, rather than later.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
What Is Property?
(book) Pierre-Joseph Proudhon – What Is Property? (medium to low quality copy)
Never before has ownership seemed more akin to theft, as Proudhon so flatly described it in the nineteenth century.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
Qu’est ce que la propriété ?
The property prejudice…
On sait ce que c’est: c’est le vol. Et pourtant, Hadopi vient nous dire, avec une certaine force de l’évidence, que “le libre c’est le vol.”
Matteo Pasquinelli
PageRank is introduced as a diagram of “cognitive capitalism”, a machine to transform the common intellect into network value. One of the hardest-hitting, counter-intuitive essays on how surplus-value extraction in cognitive capitalism is linked to rentier capitalism and ownership to present day usages.
Maurizio Lazzarato
(essay) Maurizio Lazzarato – From Capital-Labour to Capital-Life
“Capture, both in creation and realization, is always a reciprocal seizure open to the unpredictable and infinite, because the ‘creator’ and the ‘user’ tend to merge.” ML
Clay Shirky
Gin, Television, and Social Surplus
Humorous talk on technology’s transformative power toward society
The redistribution of the “cognitive surplus” generated by usership is one of the most pressing issues of political economy today. Yet most users don’t even realize they are producing surplus value…
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